Iowa Community College Issues

Iowa Press | Episode
Jun 25, 2021 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press our guests Rob Denson, president of Des Moines Area Community College, and Kristie Fisher, chancellor of Iowa Valley Community College District, discuss the status of Iowa's community colleges and some of the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Clay Masters, morning host and reporter for Iowa Public Radio. 

Program support provided by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

Recorded on June 18, 2021.


Iowa's community colleges facing numerous challenges between the past year's pandemic and future enrollment. We sit down with a pair of Iowa community college leaders on this edition of Iowa Press. (music)   Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at (music)  For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, June 25 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. (music) Yepsen: It has been nearly 60 years since Governor Harold Hughes signed legislation paving the way for Iowa's community college system. And a lot has changed since the 1960s as community colleges have spread across Iowa. We're also facing unprecedented challenges from a global pandemic, changing enrollment and even the threat of hackers. Joining us today are Des Moines Area Community College President Rob Denson and Kristie Fisher, Chancellor of the Iowa Valley Community College District in Marshalltown. Welcome to you both. Thank you for taking time to be with us. I want our viewers to know we're taping this program on June 18th. Denson: Thank you. Fisher: Thank you. Yepsen: Across the table is Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa. Henderson: Rob Denson, the Des Moines Area Community College has had a challenging June. You had a cyber-incident. Number one, what happens for students who have not had very many classes during the month of June? Are they able to get tuition back? What is the status for that? Denson: Our faculty and staff have been very resilient and on top of this. We are moving all deadlines, we told our students early on that if there was any deadline during the time we were closed we would extend that deadline that many more days when we reopen. So actually today on our website we have re-posted all of our deadline dates, withdrawal, changing classes. We have about four different starts of term in the summer for 8 weeks, 5 weeks, etcetera. We have re-adjusted everything. So we're going to make sure that our students, number one, get the same competencies that they paid for and we're very accommodating, if they need to drop out, if something has changed, we work with our students. But that part really hasn't changed. We've always had to be accommodating. But we have adjusted all of our schedules. Henderson: So give our viewers an idea of the extent of this attack. And did you pay a ransom? Denson: Well, on June 2nd one and a half hours into my vacation I got a call that three hours earlier our system had picked up an attack. All of us, we have very extensive cybersecurity precautions in place, so we got an early alert. We shut down our system immediately, notified our insurance company, they brought in all kinds of attorneys, consultants, etcetera, that have worked with us and have been through many, many of these. So everything we can tell, none of our key systems were impacted at all. We had passwords and some emails that we believe were impacted. We have just reset all of those. So we now have had to go through over 6,000 computers doing reimaging to make sure there's not something hiding in there. All that has been done successfully. Our insurance company is talking to the threat actor. We're not a part of that discussion at this point. They want to make sure that they don't tell us anything that we might share that could impact the status of any negotiations. But again, we have not seen anything or been told that they have anything that is of any real significance. But that is day by day. So we have got back on our face-to-face classes within just a few days of shutting down. Yesterday we re-opened all of our online classes, which is extensive. So as far as students are concerned they're going. We're now fixing all those other little systems. Henderson: Kristie Fisher, how vulnerable do you think your institution and others like it are? Fisher: I think we have all been paying a lot of attention for the last decade to cybersecurity. So we all know we have vulnerabilities and we're working on it every day and thanks to our partners at DMACC they have already given us some good tips of things that we could look at right now to make sure that we're doing everything possible. So it will continue to be a battle I'm sure the rest of my career. Masters: Looking at things big picture for the world of community colleges, we've seen enrollment drop across the country, reports that show that. Is that the case here in Iowa? Kristie Fisher, we'll start with you. Fisher: You know, it really is. What you can look at for community colleges is that our enrollments across the country kind of move with the economy. When the economy is really strong our enrollments drop and when it's not as strong we have people coming back seeking retraining. But in addition to that, with COVID-19 we are in an area we've never been before. So I don't think Iowa's enrollments dropped as much as the rest of the country and we're strongly positioned to really come back quickly and serve students in our communities. . Masters: Rob Denson, would you echo those sentiments? Denson: Yes, the average community college nationally dropped 9.5% enrollment, DMACC we've been down 7% throughout the year. We know that the largest single group of students that aren't coming back are low income who are impacted by so many other things during the pandemic. So that particular group understands that the need for higher education or skill building, funding with Last-Dollar scholarships and everything else there has never been a better time to come back. So we fully expect that when we're opening all of our face-to-face, which we will be in the fall, that we're going to get a nice influx. And so far our preliminary numbers, applications, registrations look very good for the fall. Masters: Kristie Fisher, you brought up the pandemic. We've heard a lot about some of the Regents universities and the impact that the pandemic has had on classes there. What kind of impact have you seen day in and day out at your community college? Fisher: I would say we saw a lot of similar impacts except for we have more vulnerable students. So we in addition to moving classes to online and thinking about what we could do to keep students safe within the physical environment, we also had to think of creative things like all but one month, all but one week of March 2020 we had computer labs open for our students with really strict protocols because we knew our students didn't have Internet at home. So, similar to those in those cases, but I'd also say unique to community colleges is we kept serving our communities. We opened up our theater to the Marshall County Judicial District because they didn't have a place or trials. They're still there. And we had our hospital up in Iowa Falls moved into our recreation center because they needed a place for physical therapy. We did mask distribution, Test Iowa site, vaccination sites. So while we were managing all of our students we were also doing everything our communities needed us to do. Masters: Rob Denson, does that sound familiar to you? Denson: Very. The biggest need was computers so we gave our many, many laptops and hotspots because Internet connectivity is a problem, even for those individuals living in Des Moines. So that was important. And then getting students into food distribution networks. So that was important because many of our low income students food is a challenge. Yepsen: There is a school of thought, and I'll start with Kristie Fisher, that this COVID thing we may not be over with it yet. There is a thing called Delta variant. Are you ready for round two? Fisher: We have yet to close down our COVID-19 response team. So we're spending the summer preparing for what we hope will be a normal year but having plans in place should we have another outbreak. Yepsen: How about you? Denson: Same thing. We're planning on being back fully face-to-face for all students that want face-to-face classes. But we had to pivot very quickly before, we've got that playbook, we've got a Come Back Strong committee so we can move quickly. Yepsen: I'm going to change gears. Kristie Fisher, I'll start with you. One of the big issues in American politics today is the forgiveness of debt that students have incurred over the years for tuition and college costs. How do you feel about forgiving college debt? Fisher: No, I think it's one of those cases where we look for a simple answer and it's a good sound bite but it doesn't necessarily get to the root cause of higher ed. I think about so many of our students came to us because they knew they could afford a community college education. So what I'd hate to see is for students who made really wise choices and attended a community college to get less benefit than those who, maybe my kids, who went to a four year private institution. Yepsen: Rob Denson? Denson: I'm the same way. I'm not the biggest fan of forgiveness. I think there could always be situations where it might make sense. But I believe that individuals went into debt to go to college for a degree that they believed had value, hopefully they were right when they did that. So I think that they've got an obligation. Yepsen: And looking forward, Rob Denson, free tuition, getting rid of tuition at community colleges. Good idea? Bad idea? Denson: We haven't seen all the details of the bill but I can tell you that Iowa is pretty far ahead. Right now if you get Pell that would, Pell dollars for low income students will pay for education anywhere at a community college and ten with Last-Dollar scholarships picking up the additional tab for up to 50 high demand careers, we're in a very good position already. And I'm not in a big hurry to move on without understanding the rules. Yepsen: Kristie Fisher? Fisher: I agree. I'd rather see it focused on our most vulnerable students. Henderson: Kristie Fisher, when the community colleges were created in 1964, when you weren't working there by the way, they were built as a place to get job training and then they have sort of evolved into a place where you can get job training or certification but also get two years on the way to a four year degree. How do you balance that? And do you think the balance is right? Fisher: To me it's the beauty of the community college. I'm a first generation college students so I attended Kirkwood Community College, which was my local community college, on a transfer path and I also had friends who were in welding or electromechanical type careers. And to me what it does is it gives students all the opportunities to explore what is out there and whichever path meets their needs we can help them find a way at a community college. Henderson: Rob Denson, we hear a lot about the need for plumbers and pipefitters and welders and you hear companies say we don't have people that are qualified to take these jobs. Do community colleges need to do more to address that sort of job training as opposed to being the pipeline to a four year degree? Denson: We need more help from the companies that hire those students. We're out recruiting heavily for all of those programs and we all have capacity to expand. We used to do welding 24 hours a day. We don't do that anymore because we don't have the student demand. Now, I don't have welding jobs, companies do. Accumold in Ankeny, Iowa has needed tool and die workers, DMACC's tool and die program should have been shut down because we didn't have enough numbers. We would do events for students, even if we provided food nobody showed up. Accumold held one event 10 years ago, 40 people showed up and that program has been full ever since. And we partnered with Accumold on our work-based learning. We did the same thing with Shazam. So we need more help with companies working to let students know what the opportunities are. Secondly, our counselors do not have time in the K-12 to really work with students on career placement and college planning. The Iowa Department of Education just put out a grant for college and career transition counselors employed by community colleges working with K-12 and that is all they do, college and career transition counseling. So we've got about 15 or 16 of them started this next year. DMACC is going to have 8. We put in a federal earmark for $5 million to hire 60 more and we don't know the status of earmarks. But I think that would be the game changer because high school counselors are spending their time with mental health, discipline, registration and have very little time based upon their caseloads to really talk and help students decide careers. Henderson: Kristie Fisher, what is the approach in your district in regards to reaching out to those high schoolers and explaining and using maybe this grant money that Rob Denson referenced? Fisher: A similar approach. So we'll have two of those counselors in the fall. In addition to that, all of the community colleges have positions that are called intermediaries and they work and help bridge the gap between businesses and the community colleges and the high schools to get students into different employers to learn about different career pathways. Masters: Looking big picture here, when you look at the scope of community colleges in the state of Iowa do you feel like there is an oversaturation as far as community colleges go because there are so many opportunities out there? Or is it a good mix right now? Rob Denson, we'll start with you. Denson: Well, when we were created we were created as merged areas. So there was already consolidation of lots of counties coming together to form the 15 community college districts. DMACC is 6,550 square miles, all are part of 22 counties. We've got a big plate to deal with every day. So I think we're about appropriately sized if we're going to give the attention to the individual businesses in all the communities we serve. Masters: Kristie Fisher? Fisher: And Rob is right, we were set up in a consolidated way so now much different than DMACC we only serve 4 counties. But we have two historical colleges, one in Iowa Falls, Ellsworth Community College and one in Marshalltown, Marshalltown Community College that we serve our local area. And I think if we were to have less than 15, areas that would suffer are rural Iowa. The reality is we need to make sure we're training and retaining people in rural Iowa if we want the state to be healthy. Henderson: Shifting to a discussion about the infrastructure that you have on campus versus maybe the infrastructure in a place like a John Deere factory where you're teaching people on the factory floor, who should pay for that? Should the state of Iowa be spending more to improve labs at DMACC, Rob Denson? Or should businesses be footing the bill because you're actually training people that are going to go from your institution to their work site? Denson: We've already got a nice mix already. Every one of our programs is managed by an advisory committee of the businesses that hire students out of those programs. So John Deere is at the table and quite frankly they help us, they provide a lot of equipment to us, we've got some funding streams from the state that actually encourages business to provide equipment and funding to help students called the ACE program, Accelerated Career Education. So they are already at the table in a fairly significant way. And we're all in this together. If you look at the amount of money that comes to the community colleges per students I think it's about $2000 a student from the state, that is a reasonable contribution because we've got all kinds of other sources, including students. Students pay about 50 some percent of the cost of our operating budgets. So our students are paying their fair share but everybody else is contributing. Henderson: Kristie Fisher, you have a major employer in Marshalltown that lost I guess the roof in a tornado, Lennox Industries. What sort of relationship do you have with local employers in your area? Fisher: We have a great relationship with Lennox and a variety of other employers and we do job training for all of them. Regardless of what they need, Lennox needed a lot of retraining after their roof was removed, they replaced a lot of equipment. So we worked with them on retraining. But the employers also, like Rob said, support us in a variety of ways. Henderson: So what percentage of students at your institution get a certificate? What percentage get a degree? Fisher: If we look at our overall graduation rate we see about 35% of students getting to the point of graduation and many leave before that on the transfer path or going into the workforce after they have earned that certificate or sometimes after they have only take a few classes because the employers are so hungry for workers. Henderson: Is that the percentage at your institution? Denson: Yes, very close. And that is our challenge, keeping students, particularly with the workforce demands right now. Our auto tech program, for example, we have about a 50% graduation rate because Karl Chevrolet and Bob Brown and Willis, they are at the door. They are on our advisory committee, they know these kids, so after a year our students have the skills that can probably be good techs. We prefer they stay the entire two years. But to go back to one thing you said earlier, we knew that we had to start putting Gen Ed classes into our current technical programming. We know our students that go out with employability skills, communication skills, writing skills, as well as knowing how to weld, if they know those other things they will do better. So as we develop those Gen Ed's for our career and technical students it just made sense that students who might be coming for the first two years of a four year degree would move in that direction. Yepsen: Kristie Fisher, do we have a worker shortage in Iowa? Fisher: Absolutely. We hear it from our local employers every day and we're working with them, in particular looking at our local citizens who are underemployed. Yepsen: Why don't they just raise pay? To borrow a phrase from Kevin Costner, if you pay them they will come. Fisher: I think what we hear from employers, not just that they have a worker shortage, but that they need workers with specific skill sets. So that is what we're doing is looking around our community and figuring out what pockets of population could we train to get them in to be good employees at Marshalltown Company or Emerson. Yepsen: Rob Denson, worker shortage? Denson: Without a doubt. We hear from companies all the time but we've got 66,000 plus or minus individuals that are unemployed. We get 5,000 prisoners released back into their communities every year. We've got 360,000 Iowans without their high school equivalency. And we've got a lot of diverse populations who have not been engaged. I am very proud to say that our Urban Campus Downtown Des Moines is the first majority, minority, student of color college or university campus in the state, over 52%. We're just investing $25 million there in a new STEM education center. But again, we need to build these facilities, get the students in because the jobs are waiting. Masters: For the last 10 years I feel like I've been hearing, I can't count the amount of times people have said that there is a skilled labor shortage in the state of Iowa. The 2021 legislative session just ended not too long ago. What do you need from Statehouse leaders? What do you need from the legislature to help finally maybe we can stop saying that there is a skilled workforce shortage here? Denson: The legislature has been extremely supportive and that is because of our great connection to business. I know you had Mike Ralston from ABI here. Mike Ralston, CIRAS, Iowa Business Council, we work with them a lot. So the legislature understands the business connection and that is with us. What we need are more employers spending more time helping students understand what the opportunities are, what the jobs are and then work-based learning, allowing our students to work part-time while they're going to college part-time or full-time and being supportive. Our students are going to have to work so if they can work in an area related to their major everybody wins. Masters: What about in rural parts of the state? Is the legislature doing enough? Fisher: Absolutely. Our elected officials have been great supporters. But we have to remember in the state of Iowa we're an aging state. So people are retiring at a greater rate than what students are coming into education tracks. So there’s not going to be a solution one day where we don't have a shortage anymore, it's going to be a continued battle. Yepsen: Rob Denson, if the students are carrying half the freight, 50% was a figure, couldn't the legislature do more? Let's buy that down to say 45% or 40%, make it more accessible to people. Denson: All of that helps. That would be helpful but we understand the state has many priorities and the fact that the legislature has provided additional funding through Last-Dollar scholarships under Future Ready Iowa to help those students who have difficulties. Where that would really help, Pell more than pays for our tuition, but students have other costs, child care, transportation, etcetera, while they are going to college and they can use what additional Pell dollars they have to help pay for that. So that would take more pressure off of them. Henderson: Rob Denson, it may be a surprise to some viewers but there are sports programs associated with community colleges in Iowa. I believe yours is a championship program in basketball. Denson: First time ever, finally. Henderson: Why are there sports programs at the institutions? And what role do they have in retention of students? Denson: Well, Boone campus is where DMACC sports are. That is because when we took over Boone Junior College in 1969 they had a sports program. It really allows our students that exceled in sports while they were in high school, go to a community college and still practice competitively. It's the same reason we have music and voice and so many other things. We want to have a well-rounded student. So we want to attract you, if that is something you did, something you're interested in, you should have the opportunity to do that here. We don't have sports like a lot of colleges and universities do and I don't know any community college that really does but it's an outlet for our students. Henderson: Kristie Fisher, what role does it play at your institution? Fisher: It brings so many students into college who may not have gone if that wasn't their path. We have 6 sports at Ellsworth and 6 at Marshalltown. And I can tell you there is a lot, in particular young men, who that is the incentive to excel in the classroom and we can't write off any group of individuals and if athletics gets people excited about learning then we should be doing athletics everywhere. Henderson: What about remedial classes? We hear a lot from the state universities that often times students arrive as high school graduates and they need some additional help to become college level students. What percentage of your students need remedial help? Fisher: The percentage varies from year to year and we're actually expecting that to grow over time with the learning loss of the last year and a half. But we have put in some really unique programs where we have 8 week boot camps at the start of the semester, we do that up at Ellsworth to get students through remedial math so we can get them into a college level math course in the same semester. We have tried some of the same things with English and then also focusing on some English language acquisition skills. So we look at whatever the students need in any given year and figure out how can we serve them in the most effective way? Henderson: How is that changing in your institution, Rob Denson? Denson: Only about 10% of our students take one or more remedial classes. And considering the high number of low income students that may have had other barriers, we think that is a very good number. But on an annual basis we serve about 36,000 credit students with an average class size of 18. If you take a remedial course it costs you the same amount of money but does not count towards graduation. So if we can put a qualified faculty member in a class of 18 and a student who is fairly close to meeting the criteria for that class, our faculty will help that student catch up while they're going through a college level class, plus we provide free tutoring. Yepsen: We've got just a few seconds left. Stimulus money is coming, the legislature has got money coming. What is the best use of the first dollar of new money that you would make? Fisher: For us the best use has been to support our students. With those federal dollars, 50% of it went directly to students and then we're looking at our institutional funds to help students as well. Yepsen: Real quickly. Denson: Same thing. Help students, number one. And then also if any revenue recovery that we have been able to have invest that in other programming. We're investing a lot in these college and career transition counselors because we think that has a long-term payoff. Yepsen: We have to leave it there. Thank you both for taking time to be with us, appreciate it. Denson: Thank you. Fisher: Thank you. Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today. (music) Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at